[Paleopsych] CHE: So Happy Together
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Fri Dec 2 02:55:26 UTC 2005
So Happy Together
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.25
If you're a scientist who is not used to collaborating with
nonscientists, you'd better get used to it
By KAREN M. MARKIN
Perhaps you love your scientific work because it allows you to spend
lots of time outdoors, taking water samples in all kinds of weather.
Or perhaps your scientific work allows you to hole up with your
computer and run calculation after calculation as you seek solutions
to problems. Either way, its you and your intellectual pursuits,
shielded from the day-to-day irritations of dealing with people.
So what could you possibly gain from collaborating with others as you
pursue your scientific goals, exposing yourself to interpersonal
conflict like a lab rat to a pathogen?
Whether we like it or not, collaboration is becoming the norm for much
federally financed research. Sometimes the complexity of todays
scientific questions requires investigators from a variety of
disciplines to work together. In other cases, agencies seek multiple
payoffs from their grant dollars: educational innovations and societal
benefits as well as advances in basic science. Either way, the
multiyear, multimillion-dollar awards increasingly are reserved for
Some investigators may now be thinking, I can play that game. Ill
collect a bunch of individual research proposals, slap them together,
and send them in under one title. More money for the same amount of
effort on my part.
It doesnt work that way.
Over and over, I have heard program officers say that in the
collaborative proposals they see, scientific excellence is usually a
given. What makes or breaks those proposals are the nonscience
aspects, such as management and leadership. Here are some things to
consider in preparing a competitive collaborative grant application.
Thinking Outside the College. First, understand that your idea of
multidisciplinary and the grant agencys idea of that concept may be
very different, and it is the agencys view that matters in grant
writing. Faculty members often focus narrowly on their area of
expertise, so that anything just a little different seems exotic. For
example, a physical oceanographer might view a partnership with a
biological oceanographer as multidisciplinary work.
While that may be so in the rarefied world of oceanography journals,
it typically is not enough for a large grant agency. Such agencies
want you to do more than think outside the department. They want you
to think outside the college.
When I say outside the college, I dont just mean chemists joining
hands with chemical engineers. In some instances, it can mean
scientists engaging with social scientists and humanists. Check past
awards in the program that interests you to see what has been
Lets use the hypothetical example of a center for the study of natural
disasters such as earthquakes to consider what a multidisciplinary
collaboration might look like. The team will naturally include a
seismologist, a geophysicist, and an earthquake engineer. But a
comprehensive center also might include social scientists. One might
explore how groups of people behave when faced with an imminent
threat. Another might be a public-policy expert who studies obstacles
to effective emergency planning.
Those social scientists will have to be an integral part of the team.
If you have an underlying disdain for what you view as soft
scientists, it will come through loud and clear.
For a truly collaborative project, you will need to accept them as
equal partners rather than people whose biographical sketches you
throw in merely to satisfy the program requirement for investigators
outside your discipline. You show that they are partners by providing
resources for them in the budget.
It is also wise to include them in development of the proposal to
ensure it is sound from a scholarly standpoint. If you are a biologist
and you write your conception of what your political-science
colleagues will contribute instead of their conception, you will
weaken your case for collaboration. You might make a fatal mistake,
such as calling psychology one of the humanities. (It has happened.)
Reviewers of collaborative proposals will be drawn from the array of
disciplines represented in the proposal. A political scientist from
another institution will quickly notice if your social scientists are
mere window dressing.
In planning your collaboration, think about an orchestra. If the
violinist is fiddling away at a bluegrass melody, the clarinetist is
tootling a klezmer tune, and the pianist is banging out Billy Joel,
its cacophony, no matter how good they are individually. But put them
together for Rhapsody in Blue, and theyre making music.
They Also Serve Who Only Push Paper. The entire scholarly team will
have to accept that a large collaborative grant requires the services
of people who arent scientists but must be adequately paid. Some
researchers find it anguishing to spend their scarce grant dollars on
anything but lab equipment and scientific personnel.
But part of the challenge of a large collaborative grant is to manage
it efficiently after you receive the award. That takes time, and you
probably have firsthand experience with it. Do you complain when you
have to submit annual and final reports for your grants? Think of that
kind of work multiplied by a factor of 10 or 15, and you will begin to
see the value of a project manager. Previous recipients of
collaborative grants say that bad management, rather than bad science,
is usually the reason that a renewal application is rejected.
Staffing needs will vary from program to program, but all
collaborations need a manager and someone to oversee the budget. In
some collaborative projects, agencies expect diversity and education
efforts. Some investigators have hired full-time individuals for each
of those duties. Although these administrative tasks may sound like
punishment to you, some people enjoy them and perform them well.
Follow the Leader. A collaborative grant requires strong leadership.
The impetus must come from faculty members who are excited about
pursuing the area of scientific inquiry at the heart of the project.
The principal investigator should be a prominent scientist with a long
record of extramural grants and publications.
But the project also needs someone to serve as its prime mover, and
that person does not necessarily have to be the senior scientist. That
individual has to be willing to put time and energy into pulling
together the collaboration. He or she needs to be organized, a good
time manager, a team builder, and able to take criticism in stride.
The project leader also must be able to persuade top institutional
officials that multidisciplinary work is valuable and rewarded in
tenure and promotion decisions. Those tasks are clearly not science,
but theyre essential to the success of the project. If you scoff at
them as mere management clichés, find someone who takes them
Those who have formed collaborations emphasize that they take a lot of
time. It is common to spend a year developing a collaborative proposal
that is based on a decade of less formal interactions with other
As with any proposal, it may take two or three submissions before you
get any money. But look on the bright side: The additional years you
spend revising the proposal allow you to develop better relationships
with your collaborators -- and to jettison the ones you dont want.
Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University
of Rhode Islands research office.
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